Realism, reliability, and epistemic possibility: on modally interpreting the Benacerraf–Field challenge

Synthese 199 (1-2):4415-4436 (2021)
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A Benacerraf–Field challenge is an argument intended to show that common realist theories of a given domain are untenable: such theories make it impossible to explain how we’ve arrived at the truth in that domain, and insofar as a theory makes our reliability in a domain inexplicable, we must either reject that theory or give up the relevant beliefs. But there’s no consensus about what would count here as a satisfactory explanation of our reliability. It’s sometimes suggested that giving such an explanation would involve showing that our beliefs meet some modal condition, but realists have claimed that this sort of modal interpretation of the challenge deprives it of any force: since the facts in question are metaphysically necessary and so obtain in all possible worlds, it’s trivially easy, even given realism, to show that our beliefs have the relevant modal features. Here I show that this claim is mistaken—what motivates a modal interpretation of the challenge in the first place also motivates an understanding of the relevant features in terms of epistemic possibilities rather than metaphysical possibilities, and there are indeed epistemically possible worlds where the facts in question don’t obtain.

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Brett Topey
University of Salzburg

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